Perhaps it crossed your mind as you watched one of those top-rated police TV dramas. As the ingenious loose-cannon detective pieced together the physical evidence of a crime scene: A spent shell casing here, a spatter of DNA matter there — you may have mused, “This guy deserves to get caught. I would have been more careful. I could get away with murder.”
You wouldn’t be the only one. Real crime scene investigators in some of the most violent American cities have observed an increase in perpetrators of serious crimes who attempt to subvert forensic investigations. Police call this a “staged crime scene.” What are the offender’s sources of information on how their crimes might be detected? Police dramas like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Many sources in the media have reported this so-called “CSI Effect,” where criminals learn special techniques to destroy evidence from television. It is true that staged crime scenes are more common in recent years, but this phenomenon isn’t exactly hurting the criminal investigation process.
The fact of the matter is that no matter how determined you are to elude capture — irrespective of how many cop shows you watch — there is very little that a determined investigator can’t see through. Hayden Baldwin, a crime scene investigator of the International Crime Scene Investigators Association, has seen the attempts and he isn’t impressed. “I’ve had several incidences where the subject has poured bleach to clean up, or even on the deceased victim to hide DNA evidence,” a process seldom used before the method was popularized by TV dramas. “It doesn’t work, but I’ve seen it.”
An expert investigator can easily see through most cover-up attempts. Aside from the detectable bleach wipe marks and their failure to completely destroy evidence, the remnants most apt to land you in jail are often more traditional: footprints, fingerprints, and trace evidence. Certainly a premeditating murderer could, with some forethought, avoid even these. But if you’re clever enough to kill like a super-spy, perhaps bleaching semen off the body of a dead prostitute is not your chief concern.
One case, reported in The Guardian, tells of two women convicted of manslaughter for allowing an elderly woman in their care to die and disposing of the body in a ravine. Prosecutor Joshua Marquis explains, “They were great fans of CSI ... they were bragging to their friends that the police would never prove whether the victim had medication in her system, because she had been in the ravine for two weeks. They were just wrong.”
The real problem caused by misinformation from police dramas is more subtle. The process of justice in our nation does not stop with the discovery of physical evidence, as it seems in some TV shows. A criminal is tried by a jury of peers, and those peers can have some pretty strange notions about police work. “The problem comes in court,“ says Baldwin. “People who watch the shows wonder why certain things haven’t been done... Physical evidence is only supporting evidence. It may be a case that has nothing to do with DNA, but if they don’t see DNA evidence they think somehow he might be innocent.”
This phenomenon has grown so rampant that jury selection in some cities now includes asking about your television preferences. Most law enforcement outfits do not have cutting-edge technology at their disposal, nor do they need it to continue prosecuting the law as they have done for years. A jury with notions of high-tech justice can take what would have been a cut-and-dried case a decade ago and turn it into an acquittal.
You might imagine that the expectations of television-conditioned jurors would be infuriating to real professional crime scene investigators, but Baldwin appears to be taking it in stride. “They don’t bother me. When they first came on I didn’t watch them, but now I watch them because I know the jury will watch them.”
A crime scene investigator watches TV so that he can anticipate jurors’ perceptions. The jurors have erroneous notions about investigation from TV; they are trying a defendant who watches TV to learn how to cover up his crime, which in turn serves as inspiration for TV writers. It is said that “life imitates art,” but in the case of crime and drama, it looks more like a cyclical relationship.